In our moment, the art of the Middle Ages is the closely guarded purview of a few—specialized scholars and their students, collectors and collections—are medieval art’s primary inheritors. For those who exist outside these small circles, the words medieval art brings to mind resplendent wealth and devastating violences; as it was the wealthy, landed noble classes who possessed the means to commission much of the surviving art objects of the period. For others outside these circles, medieval art is irrelevant, a relic of a bygone era with no impact on their lives. Such assessment is fair, for who has had easy access to art created during the Middle Ages? Who has had the means to give this art context, its breadth, depth and life? Very, very few of us.
The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis valiantly pushes against these truisms through the exhibition “The Nature of Things: Medieval Art and Ecology, 1100-1550.” The show consists of around fifty textiles, art objects and illuminated book manuscripts created during the era and forces viewers to confront each piece’s intimate connection to and dependence upon the natural world. In essence “Nature of Things” shows how the emergent industrialization of forestry, mining, quarrying and large-scale farming inextricably changed the ecosystems of Europe, Africa and Asia. These changes mark a dramatic reorientation in our collective relationship to the earth. Thus the works included in “Nature of Things” are not only decorative objects, aesthetic signals of wealth, and religious tools for moral instruction, but are artifacts of mass societal change, the aftershocks of which we are still living.
The exhibition’s art is categorized into four groups: Earth, Quarry and Mine, Field and Forest. Nature’s classification of art via ecosystem is useful as the system provides a holistic view of an object’s origins, materials, and the labor required for its creation. The Earth antechamber reveals the connection between the tiles, glass and stoneware of central Europe and the Iberian Peninsula with increasing deforestation. Quarry and Mine centers on the relationship between the stones needed for the influx of the period’s Christian churches in Western Europe and the mines of West Africa. Field focuses on objects crafted from animal products like wool, silk and vellum; and how the trade of these materials facilitated and accelerated commerce between China, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Forest speaks to the changing relationship the medieval societies of central Europe and England had with forests (i.e., they were sites of darkness, unknown, places that could be tamed through industry, the building of churches).
“Nature of Things” holds many of the expected objects of the Middle Ages: remnants of religious statuary, tapestries of creatures both mythical and mundane, book pages painstakingly drawn, and stoneware of another time and era. Yet, through the show’s emphasis on our shared relationship to the land, our many ecosystems, medieval art is brought to life in a new and surprising way.
“The Nature of Things: Medieval Art and Ecology, 1100-1550” at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Avenue, St. Louis. On view through August 6.